'Better the devil you know': Lebanese citizens share blunt opinions on upcoming elections

Society
7 min read
10 May, 2022
Any optimism borne from Lebanon's October 2019 revolution seems to have dissipated, with most Lebanese citizens broadly apathetic about real political change in the country. The New Arab speaks with potential voters about their electoral grievances.

Welcome to The New Arab’s coverage of Lebanon’s General Election 2022 held on May 15, 2022. Follow live updates, results, analyses, and opinion in our special hub here.

With the Lebanese parliamentary elections looming on May 15, the topics of politics and potential candidates are on everybody’s minds.

Dozens of billboards boast different parties, all promising change as the country continues to suffer multiple crises.

For the Lebanese people – all seeking basics like electricity and water – the elections are inspiring both hopes for a new beginning and political apathy, with many uncertain if anything will change regardless of who wins which seats.

"Many blame the country’s collapse on the entrenched political parties, which has led to many new, independent opposition groups forming in the wake of the October 2019 protests"

Sana Ankouni, a resident of the poorer Beirut suburb Dahieh, will not be voting next week as she has no faith in the system.

“Look at the situation we’re in. If you’re dying and knock on their [the politicians] door they won’t help you,” Ankouni told The New Arab. “We’re sitting in darkness most of the day; this isn’t a way to live, why should I vote for them?

“My voting area is in Ashrafieh, even though I was born and raised in Dahieh. What is the point of me voting in Ashrafieh?” she added. “They could make it a paradise over there and I won’t get any benefit out of it. I should be able to vote in the area I live in, to vote for candidates that will work for my neighbourhood.”

A highway billboard for The Third Republic lead Omar Harfouch, running for the Sunni seat in North 2, Tripoli. [Maghie Ghali]
A highway billboard for The Third Republic lead Omar Harfouch, running for the Sunni seat in North 2, Tripoli  [Maghie Ghali]

The country has been split into 15 electoral districts with lists of various candidates running in specific districts, and political parties may have candidates in more than one list or district.

Voters can only vote in the district registered on their ID, which was informed by the last census, conducted in the 1930s. Generations have passed and regardless of where voters now live, they can only vote according to where their ancestors once resided.

Many blame the country’s collapse on the entrenched political parties, which has led to many new, independent opposition groups forming in the wake of the October 2019 protests.

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One such option is the Shamaluna list, formed by independent opposition groups, which 32-year-old pharmaceutical regulator Randi Issa will vote for in North District 3.

“They represent some core changes related to October 17 [2019] movement and they have also some chances of winning a seat out of all the opposition lists, as they started working early on since October 2021,” Issa said. “I want changes like everything starting with basics – electricity, water, internet, infrastructure, healthcare coverage etc. and education with better public sector schools.”

"Do we know all there is to know about the candidates? Are their programmes clear? Do they have clear agendas with the proper mechanisms in place? Or is it just billboards with a face and a name and some dreamy slogan?"

Despite intending to vote for the opposition, Issa doesn’t think much will change after the elections, saying the majority of seats will still be won by traditional politician figures, due to mistrust of the opposition’s organisation and abilities.

“Lots of political work is needed from the new opposition groups, not only during elections period; it's a continuity of work,” he said. “They should be closer to people on the ground and not only via social media.

“They should not only target the young generations but older ones too. Boomers win you elections, and they’re the ones most likely to vote for traditional parties,” he added. “It’s not easy to find information about candidates or lists unless you follow their social media accounts or visits websites, and there is no single repository.”

Paula Yacoubian on a poster in Gemmayzeh, for the opposition list Tahalof Watani. Photo by [Maghie Ghali]
Paula Yacoubian on a poster in Gemmayzeh, for the opposition list Tahalof Watani [Maghie Ghali]

For months, social media has been rife with encouragement to vote out the traditional parties by selecting the opposition, especially amongst the younger generation. However, some Lebanese are still willing to give a second chance to establishment parties.

Recent finance graduate Youssef Chahine will be voting for the Christian right-wing Kataeb party or a list they’ve allied with in the Mount Lebanon 1 district.

“I joined the party a year ago almost. They are the party that represents me the most in terms of their stance on Hezbollah and their track record,” Chahine said. “I like the Lebanese Forces, but I don't feel they are reliable enough and I can't vote for a party allied with Walid Jumblatt.

“Kataeb already has a ready infrastructure. The others in many cases are too small,” he added. “I considered National Bloc but found, ideologically speaking, I’m most comfortable with Kataeb, because I’m sectarian and their stance on Hezbollah agrees with me.”

Kataeb's Asma-Maria Andraos for the orthodox seat in Beirut 1 (left) next to a billboard for Beirut Needs a Heart sunni candidate Fouad Makhzoumi for Beirut 2 (right). [Maghie Ghali]
Kataeb's Asma-Maria Andraos for the Orthodox seat in Beirut 1 (left) next to a billboard for Beirut Needs a Heart Sunni candidate Fouad Makhzoumi for Beirut 2 (right) [Maghie Ghali]

Chahine’s backing is mostly due to a want of parties to have strong foundations and would be open to decentralised secular parties, with substantial bases and backing, with most of the opposition lacking. He believes it will take years for them to win seats in Parliament.

While some see Kataeb as part of the ruling regime that has led to Lebanon’s collapse, Chahine argues they are not corrupt.

“If we are talking post-2005, they had very few ministers in the government and the ones they did have don't really have a corruption record,” he said, “except Sejaan Azzi, who is no longer in the party. If Kataeb were actually corrupt, the new thawra parties would not have allied with them.

“If we are talking pre-2005, before the end of the war, Amine Gemayel's presidency was bad, but it’s not exactly a country that was together. You had occupations and militias, so it’s not fair to judge him as other presidents and I don't really have enough information, nor do I care what the previous party leadership did.”

Some voters are still on the fence about who to vote for, or if they will simply cast a white ballot as a show of no faith in the system or candidates offered.

Marketing manager Rayan Khatoun had been undecided until a job offer taking her abroad came along. With diaspora registered to vote months ago, she will not be able to vote anymore, but even if she could, it was unlikely she would. 

“I have to say I was not convinced by any of the new sides calling for change,” she added. “I guess I have zero trust in them not being affiliated. I think the most I could have done was vote the current ones out by giving my voice to an opponent, but in very few days you'd hear of some hidden link – a new face, same old connections. It was worrying.

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“Do we know all there is to know about the candidates? Are their programmes clear? Do they have clear agendas with the proper mechanisms in place? Or is it just billboards with a face and a name and some dreamy slogan?” she added.

“Even if they win, they can't make a change and we'd go back to the ‘better the devil you know’ parties. I'm not one of the hopeful ones. If it does, great! But I don't see much change coming in terms of quality of life here.”

The diaspora vote has set record numbers for registration this election, turning out in force this weekend to have their say from afar. As the first election since the 2019 protests and following catastrophes, it’s anyone’s guess what outcomes, if any, may occur.

Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She worked for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for a number of publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.

Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6